11/11/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Should We Be Guilt-Tripping the Public About Their Health?

Research findings on health have a tendency to make people feel guilty about their lifestyles. Should researchers attempt to avoid this guilt-tripping quality? Or, should they, in fact, be putting it to good use? There seem to be two main ways in which guilt-tripping about health happens: one is deliberate guilt-inducing messages that aim to alter health behaviors or life styles, the second is via inadvertently guilt-inducing messages.

Guilt-tripping people who already feel marginalized and excluded is surely just burdening them with even more troubles... But, maybe health messages coming from research should make people think twice about their lifestyles. I see some problems with this hard line attitude.

Deliberate guilt-inducing
Targeting people's lifestyles puts the onus on them to change, when most of the mechanisms that produce health inequalities originate in the social structures people are subjected to. Ultimately, "poor people behave poorly" because of their material and socio-cultural circumstances. It's the social structures, services and environments that ought to be changed to favor choices and lifestyles.

Yet the current taste for "nudging" or "nudge theory," the idea of softly incentivizing people to make the "right" choices, seems like just another more insidious way of putting the onus on individuals.

Inadvertent guilt-inducing
Many of the guilt-inducing messages that stem from health research end up in the ears of the most guilt-receptive subgroup of our species: mothers.

Over the last number of decades the opportunities for mothers to feel guilty about the impact of their every breath and thought on their children has increased exponentially. Medical and public health research, as well as recent work from epigenetics, is potentially very guilt-inducing for mothers, especially pregnant ones.

Thanks to much of the (fascinating) epigenetic research, a mother may now feel the burden of responsibility for her unborn baby's personality, behaviors, and disease predispositions... but now, we can add to that the character traits and health outcomes of her baby's babies' lives...

In an article from Discover magazine, some of the current big names in behavioral epigenetics were interviewed and the crux of their work explained. It was in the article's title that I thought solace could be found. The idea that "Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes" could, in fact, be liberating for our guilt-vulnerable mothers: Don't worry about screwing-up your baby -- they're probably already in a world of trouble because of what your own mom got up to, not to mind her mother... Whew! It's not just mom's fault after all!

None of this has helped answer my initial quandary about guilt-tripping the public regarding their health. As I write today, I don't see it as a valuable technique for improving health or adjusting health inequalities.

And when it comes to the most guilt-receptive among us, here's one possible interpretation of recent research: an extended queue of the guilty precedes us, to whom we can freely defer our own guilt!

This post first appeared on Michelle's personal blog "Notes from the research frontier."